Sen. Marco Rubio announced his candidacy for president of the United States at the Freedom Tower in Miami on Monday, highlighting his family’s hardscrabble immigrant roots and embracing traditional values but also vowing to usher in a “new American century.”
As a matter of political pragmatism, is there any convincing reason Rubio shouldn’t be the Republican to take on Hillary Clinton in 2016? Because when it comes to natural political talent, it’s unlikely the GOP could do better.
For starters, Rubio is the most compelling speaker in the Republican field. Sen. Mike Lee says Rubio “can bring grown men to tears.” This is something voters value, apparently. Not only does Rubio sound as if he believes that American exceptionalism is genuine but also his populist sensibilities allow him to credibly broach the subject of inequality — mostly because he has a captivating family story to lean on.
Let’s face it; even if Rubio is overrated, he’s probably the kind of consensus candidate GOP primary voters are going to have to settle on anyway.
Other than his futile shot at immigration reform, Rubio has been reliably conservative. The Jeb Bush candidacy, driven by oodles of cash but little popular support, makes Rubio seem more palatable, while the Ted Cruz candidacy, almost exclusively propelled by the grass roots, makes him seem less severe. The money and votes will gravitate to whoever can win — if, that is, the person is somewhat ideologically acceptable to the rank and file.
Sen. Rand Paul? As appealing as libertarian-ish ideas probably are to a number of voters — and you hope the GOP embraces some of these reforms — it seems unlikely that the entire party can undergo a historic ideological shift during a primary season. That is especially true on foreign policy. Rubio is a hawk, and world events ensure that a hawk will win the GOP nomination.
After a temporary dovish turn, the right has gotten more aggressive on foreign policy. Some of this is, no doubt, a reaction to President Barack Obama’s policies on Iran, Russia, the Islamic State group and Israel. According to a Pew Research Center poll taken late last year, 54 percent of Americans overall believed that Obama’s approach on foreign policy was “not tough enough” — which included a sizable majority of Republicans.
Now, it’s also true that Rubio is a first-term senator with no record of any tangible accomplishments other than working his way into a presidential run. If you believe that this is a disadvantage, you haven’t been paying attention to contemporary politics. If Americans were concerned with achievement, Obama would not have been allowed near the presidency. What voters want is someone who makes them feel secure, someone who can empathize with their struggles, someone who can confirm their ideological worldview and someone who will give them the soaring rhetoric that makes them feel that their politics matter.
So for Rubio, a lack of a record may be helpful in a number of ways. Today a record is an opportunity for others to mangle every decision you’ve made. A blank slate allows voters to imagine all the wondrous things you could provide them and allows the politician a malleable set of policy goals.
To be fair, as a member of a congressional minority, Rubio didn’t really have many opportunities to build a record. Still, in the primaries, GOP contenders (who aren’t senators) are going to have a tough time accusing Rubio of being a slacker. What will they say? He wasn’t obstinate enough in stopping Obama’s agenda in the Senate? To some extent, Obama has also inculcated Rubio from media attacks regarding his experience as a first-term senator running for president, for obvious reasons.
The left’s reaction to Rubio’s announcement also tells us he is a formidable pick. There were far fewer histrionic hit pieces about a GOP candidate’s extremism than usual. If the most potent attack mocking a candidate is a single awkward water bottle incident, then demonizing him won’t be easy. Whereas liberals quickly found distractions for nearly all other presidential announcements — Paul is a misogynistic hothead with crazy ideas, and Cruz is a nutty theocrat with crazy ideas — the left was grasping for an effective line of attack.
Don’t get me wrong. In the end, no matter what the Republican candidate offers, he will be cast as a thug looking to steal bread and condoms from the poorest single working moms in the country. So the most vital skill any candidate can have is the ability to transcend coverage and make his case to voters. Setting aside reservations about policy, is there any other Republican who could do that more effectively than Rubio? Perhaps someone will surprise us. Although, it seems unlikely any of them could be the kind of compromise candidate that the establishment and the rank and file could agree on. And none of them will be able to contrast himself with a tedious and creaky Hillary rollout the way Rubio just did.